As an NCAA tennis player, I’ve been playing tennis since I was about 5 years old. At one point in my life, I ate, dreamt, and breathed tennis, and I know every aspect of the game. Growing up in the American society, where Basketball and Football were seen as manly sports, and tennis was not, I heard every stereotype about the game of tennis. Stereotypes such as, “tennis is such an easy sport” or “you play tennis? thats a girls sport!” Hearing these stereotypes completely crushed me. My aim for this project, was to discover the reasonings behind these stereotypes, and how they formed. After doing research and using the information I already know since I’m a tennis player, I learned that tennis is seen as a “girl’s sport” and “easy,” because men and women tennis players are seen as equals in society. They are treated equally because of historical events (battle of the sexes), the appearance of tennis players bodies (women compared to men), the physical components of tennis, and the impact of the media.
Tennis is a sport that has been around for many centuries. It was played by French monks in the 12th century, and Kings of England in the 18th century. The sport of tennis has developed so much over time, from once using wooden rackets with cow gut as the strings, to metal rackets with polyester strings. The players have also developed, from ladies once being able to wear long dresses and casual shoes, to tight-fit clothing that lets the players have flexibility, and shoes specifically designed for the sport. At one point, men and women were allowed to compete each other, for example the highly renowned 1973 match of Bobby Riggs vs. Margaret Court, known as Battle of the Sexes. Riggs had won the Men’s Wimbledon singles title in 1939, which is one of the most prestigious tournaments to this day. At this time, he was 55 years old, but still decided to compete against Margaret Court, who had just won the Women’s Wimbledon title in 1970 and was at the peak of her career. However, Riggs ended up crushing Court, with the score of 6-1, 6-2.
Immediately after, Riggs being a little overconfident, challenged Billie Jean King, an open lesbian women’s tennis player who had just won the Wimbledon title. This made King a key figure for the entire women’s liberation movement. This match was highly anticipated and was broadcasted across the globe. On September 20, 1973, Billie Jean King handily defeated Bobby Riggs, with a score of 6-4, 6-3, 6-3, helping change the view of tennis forever. “The most famous episode in this dominant construction of King is her triumph over Bobby Riggs in the tennis Battle of the Sexes where the feminist soundly defeated the self-proclaimed male chauvinist in straight sets” (Birrell, McDonald: 344). King was one of the biggest factors in why men’s and women’s tennis players receive the same amount of prize money. In this short trailer of the Battle of Sexes, you hear Serena Williams, one of the world’s best women’s tennis player, say “We owe the tour to Billie Jean King…I have a job that I love, because of Billie Jean King”. After this occurrence, people in society viewed men’s and women’s tennis players as equals, unlike any other sport.
Another key element in why mens and women’s tennis players are seen equally, is because of the difference in body types. Men’s tennis players usually have a thinner and skinnier body type, while women’s tennis players usually have a bigger and bulkier appearance. In tennis, the ideology of bodies as machines, where the male is suppose to have a very muscular balanced body, and the woman as an “hour glass” body, doesn’t fully apply. I remember when I was about 13 years old, I went to my local park to play basketball with a couple friends. When we got there, we played pick-up ball with a couple other people, ranging from the ages of 13-30. Right away, one of the guys I was playing with made a comment about how I don’t look like a basketball player. I told him I’m a tennis player, and he replied with “ohh ya, you look like a tennis player!” and some of the other guys started laughing. Just because male tennis players don’t need a very bulky and muscular body in order to be successful at tennis, doesn’t mean its any less of a physical bearing sport. This stuck for me for a very long time, and truly bothered me that male tennis players receive this negative image. Since woman tennis players have bigger and muscular bodies, they resemble the body types that society feels men should have, and since mens tennis players have skinner bodies, they resemble what society feels a women’s body should have. This results in them being seen as equals in society. In Nancy Spencer’s article “Act VI: Venus and Serena Williams at Indian Wells: “Sincere Fictions” and White Racism,” Spencer discusses how Venus and Serena Williams, both female tennis players with “muscular bodies,” are on the cover of Tennis Magazine. “Venus and Serena Williams are featured in a photograph that is accompanied by the words ‘Fitness Special: The Bod/Squad/Working out with Venus and Serena.’ The photograph no doubt resonates with consumers who associate the Williams sisters with their strong bodies” (Spencer 121). Venus and Serena’s muscular physique is seen as the norm for women’s tennis. However, you don’t see any male tennis players being advertised for their “un-muscular” body. There is only one male tennis player that I can think of that has a “body as a machine” built, and that is Rafael Nadal. However, Nadal gets a lot of attention for his body type because it is seen as very uncommon for male tennis players to have a muscular physique like his.
Another huge factor to why men and women tennis players are viewed the same in society is because of the physical components of tennis. Tennis is perceived as an “easy” sport or a “girl’s sport,” because it doesn’t require physical contact with your opponent, unlike the “Great American Sport,” football. Some people believe that a sport has to have physical contact in order to qualify as a “real” sport, and that tennis players are seen as un-athletic because they don’t do so. Tennis takes more skill and muscle memory to be successful at, and women can accomplish this in society. However, this in a sense discriminates men (and somewhat women) tennis players, because if a man plays tennis it is seen as unfitting and easy to accomplish, just because woman can acquire this same skill form. But just like any other sport, the skills women tennis players achieve aren’t at the same level as men. The number one men’s tennis player and the number one womens tennis player are at completeley different levels, the mens player would dominate the womens player. Just like in the sport basketball, the number one draft pick in men’s basketball would beat the number one draft pick for women’s basketball. The outcome is the same between the two sports. But society still believes men’s and women’s tennis are at similar levels. This youtube clip of Serena Williams on David Letter is a perfect example of how men’s and women’s tennis are two completely different sports. Even Serena Williams explains that this is true:
Like I discussed before, one of the main reasons for this is because Billie Jean King defeated Bobby Riggs in 1973. But, the game of tennis has developed so much over time, that men and women’s tennis are at completely different leagues.
Gary Emmons, discusses how tennis has the most all around athletes in his article “What Sport Has the Best Overall Athlete?” Emmons said, “Tennis players wield racquets, but they must return 120 mph serves and hit hundreds of fastballs, change-ups, and slices for hours while constantly in motion…Another requirement of any fully rounded sport should be physical fitness. While most sports require a high level of fitness, unlike tennis they also offer rest during half-times, intermissions, and substitutions. Furthermore, as The Wall Street Journal recently reported, most sports feature lots of standing around: Actual on-field action amounts to only 18 minutes per contest in baseball and 11 minutes in football.” While on the other hand, men’s singles matches last around 3-4 hours on average, and with a lot less resting than other sports. Tennis players need to have the agility of a sprinter, endurance of a cross-country runner, and mind of a chess player. Overall, tennis players are the most athletic athletes out there.
Media also plays a huge role in why men’s and women’s tennis are seen as equals. All of these things discussed, such as the Battle of the Sexes, and other broadcasting of tennis, influence the way society views this sport. The media constantly advertises female tennis players’ bodies, like the magazine with Serena’s muscular body on the front page, but we see nothing about male tennis players bodies. This results in society being manipulated into believing that men’s and women’s tennis are at the same level, and should be treated equally.
In conclusion, tennis is a sport this is highly misconceived. The main reason behind why tennis is seen as an “easy” sport, is because men’s and women’s tennis are treated the same. The result of this is due to the examples I discussed, such as the Battle of the Sexes, the physical appearance of tennis players bodies (women compared to men), the physical components of tennis, and the impact of the media. Hopefully one day, tennis can be seen as an elite sport in American society.
1) Susan Birrell and Mary G. McDonald. “Break Points: Narrative Interruption in the Life of Billie Jean King.” Journal of Sport & Social Issues, November 2012; vol. 36, 4: pp. 343-360., first published on May 15, 2012
2)Nancy E. Spencer. “Sister Act VI: Venus and Serena Williams at Indian Wells: ‘Sincere Fictions’ and White Racism.”Journal of Sport & Social Issues, May 2004; vol. 28, 2: pp. 115-135.
3) Nancy E. Spencer. “ONCE UPON A SUBCULTURE: Professional Women’s Tennis and the Meaning of Style, 1970-1974″ Journal of Sport & Social Issues, November 1997; vol. 21, 4: pp. 363-378
7) ”The Origins and Early History of Tennis.” About.com Tennis. N.p., n.d. Web. 27 Feb. 2014.